Goodbye mainstream!

It certainly didn’t happen overnight, the switch to this multidimensional, niche-embracing media culture that we find ourselves living in today. Technology, in particular, seems to have conspired to bring us here, where instead of subscribing to what the mass media tells us are popular ‘hit’ songs, for instance, we’re able to—plugged in as we’ve become to our little pocket-size (or smaller) devices—indulge our desires for an experience of culture that is more personalized, more customized, more us, in other words. What was once the mainstream in music has become fragmented to the point where what we like is what is popular. Or something to that effect.

Just two decades ago, in the now unimaginable pre-Internet era, the consumption of music for people in Kathmandu comprised a different ball game altogether, especially if you wanted to listen to anything that was slightly off the beaten path. The city had a very limited range of music available, and you’d consider yourself lucky if you came across a tape of a band you’d been looking for, even if it was just a copy of a copy (or worse, another copy) of the original cassette. This was when FM stations were freshly popping up in the Valley, and MTV and Channel V were about to make their debut on Nepali screens. At the time, it didn’t matter where your musical allegiance lay, you would always know what songs were in the Top Ten, whether it was drummed into you by the above mentioned mediums or by an accidental flip through one of the many substandard teen magazines that came up after the success of Wave. ‘Hits’ were almost an institution, definite and unwavering; in order to be completely unaware of what was currently popular, you’d also have to be clueless about everything else.

Mixtapes were huge back then.

Chart-toppers of the time usually appeared as collections that were probably compiled illegally in some shady part of Bangkok. Although the many neighbourhood shops served well enough, the Suwal Music ‘N’ Movies and Tik N Tok outlets in New Road were the go-to places to find tapes that were of the high-quality Peacock or Thompson brands. Customised collections were also all the rage. This was when you could request music stores to record compilations made up of songs of your choice, preferably on a TDK, or if you were lucky, a Maxell. If you were, however, unwilling to spend that cash, you could just use an old cassette and dub off your friend’s collection. A lot of music was traded this way, in fact. And if you had no friends willing to share, there were always the good ol’ FM stations to record off through your trusty Sony or Aiwa tape deck.

Sources for mainstream music were abundant but if you wanted something more, chances were you’d be directed to Katshop in Pako. The store was as hole-in-the-wall as it got but had a cult following, especially among people who were into ‘heavy’ music. Umes Shrestha, founder of Ktmrocks, was one of them. “Katshop had a big collection of rare metal and rock albums which to me was really amazing,” he recollects, “I used to take home ‘dubbed’ cassettes regularly and the owner wouldn’t mind if I paid later.” Katshop never sold original

cassettes but, to be fair, neither did anyone else in Kathmandu. A large part of their massive collection was traded in by regular customers—much like a real life P2P software. What Katshop did was keep the master tapes and then record albums or songs on to blank cassettes as per requests. The only downside to the store’s services was that these cassettes were generally of very poor quality because a lot of Katshop’s master tapes themselves were dubbed versions. But at a time when non-commercial music was hard to come by, you didn’t really have the right to complain.

The late 90s brought about a change in quality. Compact discs, offering a much cleaner sound, started becoming popular (and affordable) which led to the Walkman being replaced by the Discman, and the Khasa Bazaar at Maha Boudha gradually taking over English music sales. “We have been able to sustain our Nepali music sales but since Maha Boudha took over the Western music market, we’ve been hit hard,” says Prachanda Suwal, proprietor of Suwal Music ‘N’ Movies. “We’ve had to expand our business into electronic goods to compensate.” The reason for Maha Boudha’s takeover was simple: while bigger music stores sold CDs for Rs 250, the tiny shops at Maha Boudha sold the exact same things for half the price, albeit without the jewel case.

The biggest casualty of this change was Katshop, for those who frequented the store at least. “I think their business started deteriorating as the era of CDs came around. Plus, the mismanagement of the store might be another reason for them shutting down,” recalls Shrestha. True, Katshop was infamous for the shoddy way they dealt with customers. In hindsight though, it wasn’t just mismanagement that led to Katshop’s closure, the store had also become redundant by the time the 2000s hit. A lot of music shops in the city were able to support themselves with Nepali music sales but that had never been Katshop’s area of expertise.

The late 90s/early 2000s finally brought the Internet to Kathmandu and with it came Napster (and other P2P softwares) that heralded the age of the MP3. Dial-up connections were slow with a 3 MB song sometimes taking as much as two hours to download, but it was still better than what the youth of Kathmandu were used to. As time went by, connections became faster, the iPod edged out the Disc-man and it was finally possible for us to listen to bands that we could only have read about earlier. Everything was current; we were no longer lagging five to 10 years behind the rest of the world when it came to music.

By the mid-2000s, the onset of blogs, social networking sites, and filesharing hosts like Rapidshare, Megaupload, and Mediafire, made discovering new music easier than ever. Anyone could register a blog, write review,s and upload music, whether it be an illegal upload or a promo of one’s own band. Plenty of bands made it big through the Internet around this time and Albatross is perhaps the best local instance of this. They entered public consciousness with their sophomore album, Jo Jassanga Sambandhit Chha, almost entirely through word of mouth on the Internet, with very little help from traditional media. “It was the Internet that aided us in our popularity,” says band member Sunny Manandhar.

Perhaps, more importantly, an Internet connection and a computer made it possible for us to indulge in our interests, however specific they were, and meet people who were similarly inclined. Ktmrocks, the website, and the underground independent music scene that it helped foster is a prime example. In fact, a single look at the growing attendance figures at Ktmrocks’ (and their partners’) concerts at present makes one wonder who the underground really is today. “The Internet is not an alternative media anymore, it is the real media,” Shrestha states.

The means of acquiring and listening to music over the last two decades has thus been consistently evolving—at a more accelerated rate now than ever before—and it’s hard to say where it’ll take us. What we do know, however, is that what was the mainstream a decade ago seems to have fragmented today—we are increasingly moving away from the dictates of the Top Ten or other similarly institutionalized measures of popularity; one’s own playlist will soon be all that matters. Like most other forms of popular culture, our consumption of music, in whatever shape or form it occurs, is only bound to get more personalized over time.

Written by : Vishal Rai / The Kathmandu Post

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